Creole Belle by James Lee Burke, a Review by @stephenwoodfin
August 8, 2012
People who are certain of their immortality, who believe they will live forever, who think the gods have given them a special inexhaustible potion of life’s nectar need not read Creole Belle. For them, it will be a waste of time, an exercise in needless consideration of the ineffable things humans have pondered for the last ten thousand years.
For the rest of us, I can only say, “Go read the book.”
I always look forward to the next Dave Robicheaux novel. Last year, James Lee Burke released a Hackberry Holland book, so it has been two years since I had a glimpse into the lives of Robicheaux and his one man wrecking crew partner, Clete Purcel.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Robicheaux and Purcel were partners in the New Orleans Police Department as young men just home from Vietnam. Each lost his job along the way, one because of his drinking; the other for any number of bad decisions.
Nevertheless, because they are survivors, they forged a way. Robicheaux put the bottle down; Purcel cobbled his skills into a private investigator gig.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Burke’s exploration into what makes the two men tick is beyond fine writing. It is an on-going virtuoso performance that strips away the layers of polite society and exposes the souls of two men who struggle every moment of their lives to hold their demons at bay, demons that are as real as the oil-laden swamps of Acadiana.
Take this scene for instance. Dave has just told a woman about the death of her father, a racist lawman who finally received his comeuppance while he was raping and otherwise brutalizing a woman of color. We see this scene through Dave’s eyes.
I went outside and closed the screen door softly behind me and walked to the cruiser. I thought I heard her crying, but I had decided that Varina Leboeuf could not be helped by me or probably anyone else. I was glad that I was alive and that I owned my own soul and that I didn’t have to drink. To others, these might seem like minor victories, but when you are in the presence of the genuinely afflicted, you realize that the smallest gifts can be greater in value than the conquest of nations.
Creole Belle is a dark book, maybe darker than any James Lee Burke novel so far. The darkness stems not from a change in subject matter so much as the coming of old age, the sense that the end, if not in sight, is just around the bend, that the opportunities to salvage something good from a life of bad choices are escaping, are just out of reach.
Despite the bleakness of his characters’ lives, Burke never allows his reader to lose track of hope, the hope of an innate paradoxical justice, which floods onto the page, always catching him off guard.
We know in our guts that these beautifully flawed, wounded people will never give up on loyalty and love, that they will act against their own self-interest, that they will seek not just their own redemption but the salvation of the worst of the worst.
We know, too, that if salvation doesn’t reveal itself in time, they will not hesitate to take matters into their own hands, to guess at the ways of God.
I just finished Creole Belle a few minutes ago, so I am not yet in the detached mode where a reviewer should languish, a world where academics apply erudite grammatical standards to a work of art and ignore its impact on the human soul, a realm where truth is relegated to the back of the room and ego takes center stage.
Creole Belle is not for the faint of heart. It is not for anyone who wishes to turn a blind eye to the forces that drive the engines of money and greed. Neither is it for those who have no demons gnawing at their hearts, those who go to bed and sleep like babies, who dream vivid dreams in pastels. It is not for those who have made no mistakes in their lives, those who go to church and pray for other people and see no need for contrition.
Creole Belle is for the rest of us.